Mr. Gärtner, as one of your company pillars you offer electrosynthesis as an alternative to classic synthesis routes. What are the advantages of your method?
We offer electrosynthesis for the production of organic fine and specialty chemicals. The electrosynthesis technology allows an inherently safe reaction process since the progress of the reaction can be directly controlled by switching the power supply on or off. This contrasts with conventionally thermally controlled reactions. In addition, electrosynthesis is a substitute for expensive and toxic oxidizing or reducing agents. By using electrodes instead of chemicals, not only can the amount of energy supplied be precisely adapted to the substrate and thus the redox process made more energy-efficient, but chemical waste can also be drastically reduced by avoiding it. Finally, through the direct use of electricity, which unites all electrolysis processed, electrosynthesis can act as a game changer in organic synthesis, since fine chemical production can also be coupled with the energy sector and thus provide services within the framework of the energy transition.
In the spirit of sustainability, you also dedicate yourself to the recovery of elemental zinc and copper, primarily from combustion residues. Where do such residues occur and what are the requirements that these residues have to meet? Where do you see your technology in the context of circular economy?
The circular economy is already well advanced for metals. As neither material properties nor prices are influenced by recycling, there is great effort to recycle metals. When it comes to recycling, we start where classic processing methods reach their limits due to the grain size or complex composition. Since copper and zinc are not only used as metals, but their oxides or salts also have chemical applications, both elements can be found, for example, in incineration ashes and flue gas filter residues from household waste incineration or in residues from hot-dip galvanizing. We do not offer a universal process here, because the residues, or for us raw materials from secondary sources, differ from plant to plant even with waste incineration. We are adapting to this and are working on the extraction of copper and zinc from residues that are still deposited today and using purely electrolytic extraction or a combination of biotechnology and electrolysis. Further elements are to be added in the future. In this way we can contribute to making the circular economy for metals a closed cycle.
Your company is steadily growing. What is your vision regarding worldwide sustainability and what obligations do governments and the society have?
Due to my training, I see the mentioned topics pragmatically and analytically. Society should carry out a climate or sustainability lockdown and build a new, sustainable economic system in harmony with our ecosystem based on the current state of knowledge. At this point I become a realist and see that after a corona lockdown you quickly give up the advantages of sustainable solutions in favour of old and comfortable habits and also have to give up in order to avoid a complete collapse of the economy with all the worldwide consequences. Since the government in a free and democratic society is always subject to a certain inertia and is not an oracle, it can only try to set incentives and unconditionally support science and innovative companies. Ultimately, it depends on the ideas, the will, and the commitment of each individual in order to develop attractive and cost-effective sustainable alternatives for the society. At the end of the day, money is the decisive factor, which also means that the introduction of global sustainability must not leave anyone behind and must benefit everyone equally.
Dr. Tobias Gärtner studied chemistry at the University of Regensburg and started working for the Fraunhofer IGB after completing his doctorate. At the institute’s branch in Straubing, he was responsible for setting up the site for almost ten years and has initiated several projects in the area of combining biotechnology, chemical catalysis and electrochemistry for the conversion of CO₂ and the treatment of combustion residues. As one of the co-founders he has been working as CEO for ESy-Labs since 2018.